In order to understand mythology in Japan it is important to mention first four factors that definitely influenced the building and conservation of mythology in the Far East. Firstly, Japan was greatly influenced by Buddhism, but at its arrival to Japan, communities were relatively young. Such complex religious beliefs brought from Korea and China weren’t seen before on these islands. We will not look at the period when Buddhism entered Japan though, as we will focus on a previous period, the times of Shinto. Secondly, Japan did not suffer such fundamental experience, either social or cosmic, of disillusion as we have noted in other areas such as India, Mesopotamia or China. Thirdly, at their entry upon the state of history they were still endowed with a primary sense of the numinous of all things, which was the mental state sui generis of religion at the beginnings of human beliefs. Lastly I should mention that Japan is an island and as such it works as an organic whole from top to bottom of its social order and obviously this influences the way mythology has been written in this area.
If we need to mention a characteristic that suits and defines conceptually Japanese mythology, I would say that Japan wrote a mythic past that treated as history became a fairytale of historical past. In times of Yamato, rulers invented a past composed of local myths arranged as a world chronicle. The source for that chronicle was Chinese mythology and the latter was inherited from Sumer. This chronicle told the origin of the universe, of the ages of the gods and of the ages of the first superhuman kings. Besides, the myths and folklore stories written by Japanese authors were child like folkloristic heritage. Japanese authors wrote the most remarkable history of the world-as-fairytale, which means that everything was only play, an ideal of life masked by the fashionable fiction.
The first stories of the creation of the universe and of the cosmos spoke of an age of spirits, and age of emptiness, when the spirits appeared and created everything we now have. At that time, the West had Gods and Japan had Kami, a different concept from the God we understand. These were times of Shinto, times of the numinous. Living Shinto was living in gratitude and awe amid the mystery of things. A Shinto rite was an occasion for the recognition and evocation of an awe that inspired gratitude to the source and nature of being. A Shinto rite was addressed to the sensibilities, which hints at Japanese tending to favour the emotional over the rational, taking pleasure in sensing the atmosphere.
The Shinto basic idea was that the processes of nature could not be evil and that the pure heart was to follow these processes of nature. Man needed a pure heart to follow the processes of nature and to become divine. As one of the first conserved written records of religion and myth in Japan, Shinto is defined as a theology, a dance, a religion of awe, a powerful feeling of reverence, fear or wonder towards the cosmos.
During these times it was believed that in shrines three symbolic talismans could be found: a mirror symbolising purity, a divine sword symbolising courage and a jewell necklace, which symbolised benevolence. As I mentioned already, Shinto was devoted to the numinous, with experienced gratitude for its mystery. Shinto operated domestically, with gratitude towards the family, the well, gate, etc. Then it operated towards the local community cult, towards the local phenomena of the scene and the dead. Thirdly, it operated towards craft cults, the mysteries and powers of tools, materials… Lastly, Shinto also operated towards the national cult, in gratitude to the Emperor in his palace, the house of awe and to his world-preserving ancestors, the great Kami of the Kojiki.
In the age of the Spirits, the story goes saying that first there was chaos, then the great august spirits became alive, creating the universe and all within it. These divine acts were achieved by sacrificing and by the usage of blood as source of life. In another myth, in the descent of the kingship, it is the work of the spirits together with nature that brings the first kingdoms to earth. These stories spoke of a mythic past where the divine was impregnated on all beings, where the spirits became the producers of the cosmos at micro and macro level. These were the times of the origin of a written mythical past in Japan, just before other currents such as Confucianism or other branches of Buddhism came into contact with the Far East Islands.
Based on series of books by Joseph Campbell, “The Masks of God”.
Image taken from: www.worldatlas.com